Monday, June 28, 2021

Tall tales: When your gifted child lies to you

"No, mom. It wasn't me. Josh was the one. He ate the last of the candy." 

Of course, Josh is an infant, and your three-year-old miscalculated the likelihood of discovery when passing blame onto his brother. How should you react? And why would your sweet, innocent child choose to lie to you?

From Kelly Sikkema

Lying is a developmental milestone. That's right... it's an accomplishment. Once children appreciate the complexity of their world, the intricacies of interpersonal communications, and an awareness that rules can be broken, telling lies is not far behind. How we respond when our children lie, though, can influence their ability to regroup and choose the higher road going forward. 

Gifted children may start to lie at a younger age than their peers due to their cognitive complexity and precocious understanding of communications. They realize that honesty is not the only option available in a given situation. You can almost envision the light bulb turning on when they realize that they don't have to play by the rules! Sometimes this awareness develops after observing adults who lie. Other times, it stems from observations of the world around them, whether witnessing their older sibling's attempts to deceive or watching cartoons where lying gets all the laughs. But many children discover the power of deception on their own without provocation - realizing that they just might get away with a transgression if they conjure up a somewhat believable excuse. Even gifted children with a strong sense of fairness and justice may rationalize that a small deception won't harm anyone.  After all, is it really so important to find out who broke that glass vase? Or who shoved that annoying kid in the lunch line?

The necessary ingredients for deception

Researchers Angela Evans and Kang Lee have identified two necessary components that support the emergence of deceptive behavior. They argue that "lying is an early developmental milestone, and its emergence and development reflect increased cognitive development." Lee claims that "children with better cognitive abilities are capable of telling better lies. All of which implies that lying is as much a developmental milestone as any other cognitive task." The components necessary for deception include the following:

1. Lying requires an ability to empathize - the capacity to appreciate how someone else is feeling and thinking, often referred to as "theory of mind." Children can lie once they are able to assess what others know - and what they don't know. Tania Lombrozo summarized recent studies of lying among young children, and stated that "understanding that other people's beliefs can depart from one's own is a prerequisite for a host of sophisticated judgments and behaviors." including deception. It is a milestone in cognitive development to "appreciate that another's beliefs can diverge from reality and from one's own."

2. Lying also involves executive functioning skills - the ability to observe, plan and restrain one's impulses. In essence, children who can determine both when and how to lie are more successful and believable liars. Lee noted that in addition to understanding what others are thinking, they also must be able to plan ahead and restrain their impulses. 

Once children discover how to lie, they continue to refine their skills!

Researcher Kang Lee reported that approximately 30% of two-year-olds, 50% of three-year-olds, and 80% of four-year-olds lie. However, once children stumble upon their capacity for deception, they recognize that they must refine this skill. As their capacity for empathy increases, children learn when lying might be acceptable, and sort out when, where, how, and to what extent they will engage in deception. 

Children also eventually grapple with their sense of morality and integrity. Researcher Gail Heyman claimed that "the initial discovery of deception is not an endpoint. Rather, it’s the first step in a long developmental trajectory. After this discovery, children typically learn when to deceive, but in doing so they must sort through a confusing array of messages about the morality of deception." According to Heyman:

"As they develop, children often learn how to employ more nuanced forms of manipulation, such as using flattery as a means to curry favor, steering conversations away from uncomfortable topics and presenting information selectively to create a desired impression. By mastering these skills, they gain the power to help shape social narratives in ways that can have far-reaching consequences for themselves and for others."

White lies are the most common example of the gray areas associated with lying. Prosocial lying, or using deception to avoid hurting others' feelings, is often condoned. How many parents have begged their children to express gratitude for a disappointing birthday present, or refrain from telling relatives they were bored during a recent visit?  Children are astute observers of behavior, and notice that adults around them lie to protect others from negative feelings or opinions. And their openness to expressing white lies increases with age. Researcher Victoria Talwar, for example, found that the willingness to engage in prosocial lying increased from 72 percent among 3- to 5-year-olds to 84 percent among 9- to 11-year-olds.


As children mature, lying becomes more complicated 

While most parents can overlook - and even laugh about - their young child's fumbling attempts to deceive, lying becomes more problematic as children mature. Deceptive behavior in adolescence may seem like a rite of passage, yet generates conflict, distrust, and many parents' sleepless nights. Why do teens lie so much?  According to psychologist Carl Pickhardt, teens lie "for freedom's sake — to escape punishment for misbehavior or to get to do what has been forbidden. To many teenagers, lying seems to be the easy way to get out of trouble or to get to do some adventure that has been disallowed."

Researcher Nancy Darling studied deception in adolescents worldwide, and claimed that 98% of teens lie to their parents. She identified three reasons for lying: “they think they will get in trouble, they think their parents will be disappointed in them, and they think their parents will stop them from doing something they want to do in the future.” Gifted teens may not necessarily lie more than their peers, but are particularly skilled at devising stories to justify their lying, and masters at arguing and defending themselves. Parents may not believe the lies, but fail to break through their gifted teen's impenetrable defenses. 

Nevertheless, many adolescents struggle with the moral implications of lying. Some even devise complex decision-making constructs that condone deception under certain conditions. For example, some teens may adhere to complete honesty among friends, but cheat on tests (especially when they have lost respect for school). Others may lie to their parents about alcohol use, but maintain honesty and integrity with their teachers. Gifted teens, who often feel drawn to what they view as fair and just, may grapple with their own "hypocrisy" as they attempt to justify lying under specific conditions.

In a survey of more than 23,000 high school students compiled by the Josephson Institute of Ethics, over 95 percent of adolescents stated that “lying is morally wrong.” Eighty-six percent of these teens also endorsed the following statement: “It’s not worth it to lie or cheat because it hurts your character.” Overall, the teens believed that lying was more acceptable when "doing good" or being polite, but not when used for self-gain or potential harm.

What can you do?

How we respond to our child's attempts at deception is essential to their growth and development.  Consider the following approaches:

1. View deception within a developmental context. What tactics work with your three-year-old  will not help your teen. Just as you might differentiate a white lie from more serious forms of deception, keep in mind what is typical behavior based on your child's age. A young child may be testing the limits. A ten-year-old may lie to gain acceptance with peers. Adolescents often lie to protect their privacy, maintain a sense of independence, and rebel from norms. This does not mean you should condone lying; it merely places your child's behavior in context with their stage of development, and offers some perspective about the "normalcy" as opposed to the seriousness of their behavior. 

2. Role-model kind and tactful honesty. Your child will learn by example, and at the very least, internalize a sense of right and wrong. As much as possible, try to express comments honestly, tactfully, and kindly toward your child, friends, family members, and even (especially) toward people you dislike. Gifted children can sniff out hypocrisy and will lose respect if they view adults as inauthentic, ingratiating toward others, or willing to lie in a self-serving manner. 

Honesty with your child does not suggest oversharing what should be kept private. As a parent, you are in charge of protecting your child, and may need to withhold some of the truth at times. Parenting decisions often require an appreciation of your child's developmental and emotional level and what information they can absorb. Let them know you are not "withholding" information, but handling these "adult" concerns so that they don't have to worry about them. They will forgive you later on for lying about Santa Claus or shielding them from the extent of your financial worries. 

3. Offer alternatives. Remind them that dishonesty is one of several options available in any given situation. Rather than telling a white lie, encourage them to identify comments that are more authentic. Talwar has noted that when we encourage white lies, we are setting up an expectation that lying is acceptable. She suggests "strategic honesty," where your child is encouraged to identify a positive, but truthful comment instead of lying. For example, they can rave about the delicious homemade pie their relatives served, rather than lying about enjoying an unpleasant visit. 

4. Set clear expectations. While all children, and especially teens, deserve some privacy and will resent overly probing questions about their thoughts, it is your job to set clear guidelines about what is acceptable. Let them know that you disapprove of deception, especially when it involves self-gain, manipulation, or an activity that is harmful to them or others. Let them know that dishonesty destroys trust, is hurtful, and that you expect a trusting, honest relationship with them. This may not always be an attainable goal, but it is an expectation they will internalize and eventually strive to achieve.

5. Create a warm, accepting environment. Despite setting clear expectations and limits, create an atmosphere of acceptance and trust. When addressing deceptive behaviors, demonstrate that although you may disagree with your child's decisions or behaviors, you still love and respect them. When our children disappoint us, it can be quite difficult to keep our own strong emotions in check. Try to convey that you understand their frustration, but it is your job to set limits or implement discipline. As much as they may grumble about it, they will understand your concerns as long as the discipline is not excessive, and you steer clear of hurtful or shaming comments. This is especially critical with adolescents. As noted here:
"The recipe for honesty turns out to be cultivating warm, strong relationships with teens so they respect your rules and value your advice... Research suggests that teens lie less when they have this kind of relationship with their parents, in part because they don’t feel like they need to, and in part because they don’t want to risk losing their parents’ trust."

6. Despite its developmental normalcy, recognize when lying is a symptom of a more serious problem. Red flags include lying on a regular basis, if lying negatively affects their functioning at school or with friends, if it is associated with stealing or other transgressions against others, and if fueled by drug or alcohol use. Lying also can reflect apathy or frustration with school, other's expectations, or family norms, and may represent a form of protest against a situation or relationship that upsets your child. When deception is more serious, consider meeting with a licensed mental health professional for support.

It is disheartening to admit that everyone lies. We need to remember this reality, though, as we navigate parenting a gifted child. If your child has not lied to you yet, just wait; they will not disappoint! Your job as a parent requires you to remain flexible, although firmly grounded in your beliefs as well as your love for your child.

Additional helpful articles about deception and how to intervene with your child:

When children begin to lie, there's actually a positive takeaway

How to deal with lying in children and teens

Adolescent lying: What it costs and what to do 

Emergence of lying in very young children

Is your 4-year-old a liar? Here's the bright side

Why do children lie? Normal, compulsive and pathological lying in kids

Young children discover how to deceive in 10 days: a microgenetic study (paywall)

Social and cognitive correlates of children's lying behavior

Children's lies are a sign of cognitive progress (paywall)

When teens lie (because they all do)

10 steps to stop a child from lying


  1. This is an important topic, Gail. Thank you for writing it and for the concrete suggestions.

  2. A great reminder of how kids are learning to be human, and that we don't always need to make everything a huge deal.

    1. Exactly. Thanks, Cara. I appreciate your feedback!